The Green Bay Packers have enjoyed back-to-back 13-3 seasons, and with a quarterback coming off one of the best MVP seasons in NFL history, you would think they would be in a great position to win the NFC North in 2021. The only problem is that the quarterback wants out.
Aaron Rodgers has already etched his name into the football history books, and there is little else he needs to do to ensure that he goes down as one of the best passers the game has ever seen. He has plenty of non-football interests, too, which means he doesn’t need the game the way some other players might. So, at this point, there is a very real chance Rodgers chooses to walk away from football rather than be forced back into a situation he isn’t happy with.
The Packers may have burned their bridges with Rodgers when they traded up to draft his replacement, Jordan Love, in the 2020 NFL Draft without giving him any heads-up that it was on the cards. So, if Green Bay is forced to roll into the upcoming season with Love as the starting quarterback, who is the favorite for the division that otherwise would be Green Bay’s to lose?
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The 2020 NFL season was an unusually poor one for the Vikings. The side ended at 7-9, the first losing season under Mike Zimmer since his first year in charge — when Matt Asiata was their leading rusher and a rookie quarterback was teaming up with what was left of Greg Jennings in the passing game.
Minnesota found itself in a similar state of flux in 2020, but this time it was on the defensive side of the ball. The team needed 1,722 snaps out of rookies just at the cornerback position over the season, while the combination of injury and opt-outs robbed them of any defensive linemen capable of making any kind of impact.
Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson combined to rush the passer 674 times and registered just 16 total pressures, a staggering rate of pass-rushing futility that didn’t help the aforementioned rookie corners on the back end.
The struggles endured by the young players thrust into action last season should begin to pay dividends in Year 2, even if the allegations of a brutal domestic assault leveled at Jeff Gladney may mean his place in the equation is up in the air. Cameron Dantzler played extremely well down the stretch as a rookie, earning two PFF single-game grades above 90.0 in a three-game stretch, and always had the tape to be a high-level NFL starter. Harrison Hand was the third of the rookie corners last year in terms of playing time, but with Gladney away from the team and Dantzler sidelined for a time with injury, Hand has been the standout at the position thus far in minicamps and OTAs, running with the starters.
Patrick Peterson was also brought over in free agency. And while he hasn’t been the force that he used to be over recent years, there are many reasons to think he will be significantly better in this defense than he has been in Arizona of late.
Up front, the Vikings get Danielle Hunter back on the defensive line with a reworked contract that should see him ready to roll. The last time we saw Hunter, he recorded 88 total pressures on the season, second in the NFL. He is still just 26 years old and has as much talent as any edge rusher in the game.
The real upgrade should come inside on the defensive line, which has been anemic for a number of years. Michael Pierce returns from opting out last season due to Covid concerns, and he will now play alongside free-agent acquisition Dalvin Tomlinson. That gives the Vikings an interior duo that averages something in the region of 330 pounds, and both players have an impressive track record of stopping the run. Tomlinson has earned a PFF run-defense grade of at least 79.0 in three out of his four seasons in the league, while Pierce has back-to-back grades of at least 87.0. It's still fair to question where the interior pass-rush comes from, but the Vikings should be dramatically stronger up the middle, and both players can at least squeeze the pocket even if they aren’t going to be racking up huge pressure numbers.
Elite stalwarts like Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith return, and the offense remains in good shape in terms of skill position players with the team still trying to upgrade its offensive line. It’s not that the Vikings don’t still have questions, but they have a lot of obvious upgrades on paper over the team that was 7-9 last year. If Rodgers is gone, they become the team with the best proven quarterback in the division in Kirk Cousins.
The Bears' offseason quarterback circus has felt like such a desperate chase for an upgrade that it’s easy to forget Chicago went 8-8 and made the playoffs last year, even with a combination of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles under center.